The Royal Navy Submarine WWII


Submarines figured prominently in both world wars but in each case attention has focussed mainly on the role of the German U-boats, ignoring the work of British submariners and for that matter their American counterparts who did so much to interrupt supplies from Japan’s newfound empire to the home islands. British submariners wreaked havoc in the Baltic and the Bosphorus in the First World War, and maintained an outstanding campaign in the Mediterranean in the Second World War. So much of this has passed by unremarked and with little attention.

As in the Fleet Air Arm, the Royal Navy’s submariners received extra money, but while the former described it rather nobly as ‘flying pay’, the submariners were blunt and to the point; to them it was ‘danger money’. Both these sections of the Royal Navy had been regarded as not very respectable when first formed, and indeed one First World War submariner was turned down for an important posting despite being favoured by an Allied government because the Admiralty thought he was ‘something of a pirate’.

Submariners and airmen were a breed apart. They had come together briefly between the two world wars with the ill-fated M2, the Royal Navy’s only attempt at an aircraft-carrying submarine whose aircrew, flying the diminutive Parnall Peto seaplane, were reputed to have received both danger money and flying pay. The extra money was necessary to attract men into the submarine service, for apart from the extra dangers there were many other hardships including cramped accommodation with the smell of diesel oil always present and a shortage of fresh water, which was why beards, known as a ‘full set’ in the Royal Navy, were so common among submariners. The Submarine Service was organized in flotillas for control and administrative convenience. There was never a set size for a flotilla; it could be just two or many more vessels, but they were usually grouped around a base such as the headquarters, HMS Dolphin , a stone frigate at Haslar, Gosport, or a depot ship such as HMS Forth .

Submarines were more than just another means of striking at enemy shipping. In contrast to the nuclear-powered submarine that spends most of its operational life submerged, Second World War submarines spent much of their time on the surface, only diving when threatened or when needing to be concealed before making an attack. Many attacks were made on the surface, using the deck gun rather than a more expensive torpedo, of which only replenishment stocks could be carried. The submarines of the day could cruise at a reasonable speed on the surface, but were very slow when submerged unless they made a high-speed dash, itself still not very fast, in which case their batteries would need recharging after about an hour.

Submarines could be used for mine-laying, inserting special forces and for reconnaissance or guiding an attacking force towards a landing area and also to carry urgent supplies. They had a greater radius of action than a destroyer and made use of much less manpower. In theory, they could get much closer to an enemy warship than a destroyer without being detected. The Royal Navy’s submarines varied greatly, ranging from the larger boats (submarines were never ships) for mine-laying and smaller craft for operations in confined or shallow waters, and of course there were the X-craft, the midget submarines.

Among the more notable successes of British submarines were the torpedoing and sinking of the German light cruiser Karlsruhe off Kristiansand during the Norwegian campaign by Truant on 9 April 1940. Later the ‘pocket battleship’ or Panzerschiff Lutzow was caught by Spearfish , commanded by Lieutenant Commander John Forbes, as the German ship was on her way from Norway to Germany for repairs to bomb damage. Although not sunk, Lutzow was disabled and had to be towed into harbour at Kiel.

This was not the last British success against a major German warship. The heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen , believed by many to have fired the fatal shell that destroyed HMS Hood and which had participated in the celebrated Channel Dash in February 1942, was discovered in Norwegian waters by Lieutenant Commander George Gregory in Trident on 23 February 1942 and a well-placed torpedo blew off part of her stern. A slow crawl with a temporary rudder to Trondheim was needed for temporary repairs before the ship could go to Kiel for permanent repairs, putting her out of service for the rest of the year.

British Submarine Strategy

Submarine strategy and tactics varied greatly between the belligerent nations during the Second World War. In 1939, the British Admiralty decided that the priority target for British submarines would be enemy warships. Submarines were to wait in their individual patrol areas, submerged, waiting for enemy warships to appear. By 1941 this strategy had been amended, especially in the Mediterranean where submarine commanders were given what amounted to a roving commission to attack anything that appeared worthwhile and, of course, merchantmen supplying Axis forces in North Africa or the Balkans were very worthwhile. The same approach later applied in the Far East.

The Royal Navy did not neglect specialized craft, including the midget submarine. After experimenting with a one-man design known as the Welman – basically a cross between a midget submarine and a human torpedo – British midget submarines evolved into the X-craft with a four-man crew. One or two members of the crew had to leave the craft in wet suits with breathing apparatus to place explosive charges on the target. This was a different approach from the Axis navies, who used midget submarines armed with torpedoes carried externally. The finest hour for the X-craft was on 20 September 1943 when six of these vessels penetrated the defences around the Altenfjord in Norway and placed explosive charges on the hull of the German battleship Tirpitz , damaging her machinery and main armament so that she was out of action for seven months. Tirpitz had earlier been the target for British human torpedoes, known to the Royal Navy as ‘chariots’, that had mounted an unsuccessful attempt to sink the ship in October 1942.

Later, on 6 June 1944, two X-craft undertook beach reconnaissance before the Normandy landings and then provided guidance to the British beaches.

Other targets included a floating dock in Norway, while a development of the X-craft, the XE-craft, was used in the Far East to disable Japanese communication cables and they also damaged a cruiser.

During the Second World War, British submarines sank 169 warships, including 35 U-boats, and 493 merchant vessels, but at a high cost with no fewer than 74 British submarines sunk, a third of the total number deployed during the war. A third of British submarine losses were due to enemy minefields. Just one submarine, Triumph , survived contact with an enemy mine and her survival was all the more remarkable as she lost her bows as far back as frame eight, which meant that she also lost her torpedo tubes and ten torpedoes!

The Malta Submarines

Before the outbreak of war, the Admiralty saw Malta as a base for submarines and other forces able to attack the Italian supply lines supporting their forces in North Africa. Yet, the battle was far from one-sided and within three days of Italy entering the war on 10 June 1940, three British submarines, Grampus , Odin and Orpheus , had been sunk by Italian warships. As the bombing of Malta intensified, submarines in port had to lie submerged on the harbour bed in the hope of being missed.

In 1941 Malta became an operational base for submarines. This was not without difficulty as most of the necessary supplies had been taken to Alexandria, but submarines operating from Gibraltar to Malta overloaded with torpedoes and other supplies until stocks were built up. The use of Malta as an offensive base was helped by the introduction of the new U-class submarines, smaller than many of the other classes but ideal for the clear waters of the Mediterranean in which, all too often, sonar is not needed to spot a submerged submarine.

These clear waters often proved fatal for larger submarines, but the U-class was better suited to the conditions, although the class had had its origins in plans for a smaller training submarine. Nine of the U-class were deployed to Malta as the 10th Submarine Flotilla: Undaunted , Union , Upholder , Upright , Utmost , Unique , Urge , Ursula and Usk . Usk and Undaunted did not survive long, but their place was soon taken by others of the same class. In addition to attacking Axis convoys and warships, these submarines were also ideal for landing raiding parties on the Italian coast and on one occasion wrecked a railway line along which trains carrying munitions for the Luftwaffe bases in Sicily travelled.

The submarines were based at Manoel Island, which lay in the Marsamxett Harbour and was approached by a causeway off the main road from Valletta to Sliema, the island effectively dividing Sliema Creek from Lazaretto Creek. Originally a fort designed to cover the outskirts of Valletta which towered over the other side of the harbour, Manoel Island became a naval base with workshops and accommodation for resting submariners and for artificers, the Royal Navy’s term for skilled tradesmen, who were often senior ratings. The submarines were moored alongside. Substantial anti-aircraft defences were placed on Manoel Island, as being on the opposite side of Valletta from the Grand Harbour did not spare the base from heavy aerial attack.

Offensive submarine operations based on Malta started in February 1941 with patrols by Unique , Upright and Utmost . The first significant engagement was later that month when Upright , commanded by Lieutenant E.D. Norman, sank the Italian cruiser Armando Diaz , one of two cruisers escorting a large Axis convoy. No doubt the Italians had put on two cruisers to impress their German allies, but there were no major British warships in the area and the cruiser, which posed no threat to a submarine, proved an ideal target.

Reconnaissance reports of large-scale shipping movements were received on 8 March and resulted in three boats being sent to sea. This was despite Utmost , commanded by Lieutenant Commander R.D. Cayley, having only been in harbour for twenty-four hours. The following day she found and sank the Italian merchantman Capo Vita . On 10 March Unique sank another merchantman, the Fenicia . Later in the month these submarines were at sea again, with Utmost finding a convoy of five ships on 28 March and torpedoing and sinking the Heraklia , while the Ruhr had to be towed into port. The return voyage for the depleted convoy was no less eventful when Upright torpedoed and severely damaged the Galilea , reported as being a straggler.

In April Upholder joined the Malta flotilla, and for almost a year she and her commander, Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Wanklyn, played havoc with the Axis convoys. From April 1941 to March 1942, this one submarine accounted for three large troop-carrying liners each of more than 18,000 tons, seven other merchant ships, a destroyer and two German U-boats, as well as damaging a cruiser and three merchant ships. The first two troopships had been in a convoy of three approached by Wanklyn steering on the surface and skilfully firing a spread of four torpedoes at the ships. Two of the troopships managed to zigzag into the path of the torpedoes with one sinking immediately, leaving the other to be finished off by Wanklyn when he returned the following morning. Ursula missed the third troopship which managed to reach Tripoli safely. For his time in the Mediterranean Wanklyn was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest British service decoration, and the DSO. It was a sad day when Upholder was lost off Tripoli with all hands in April 1942.

So successful was the Malta-based 10th Flotilla in disrupting the supplies for Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the Western Desert campaign that his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Fritz Bayerlein, later admitted: ‘We should have taken Alexandria and reached the Suez Canal had it not been for the work of your submarines.’

For about a year the Malta-based submariners exacted a high price from the enemy, but even so, opportunities were missed. More than any other type of warship, submarines needed to practise ‘deconfliction’, largely because of the difficulty of recognizing other submarines. Deconfliction is the deliberate separation of friendly forces. In British submarine practice, this meant placing submarines to operate independently within designated patrol zones known as billets, and any other submarine found in that area was to be regarded as hostile. Off Malta there were often so many British submarines that it was necessary to impose an embargo on night attacks on other submarines because of the difficulty in accurate recognition.

Early one morning in 1942, Upright was on the surface when her lookouts spotted another larger submarine on a reciprocal course and it was not until the two boats had passed that they realized the other submarine was a large U-boat. There were many U-boats off Malta at the time and no one will ever know whether the Germans were working to the same rules or whether their lookouts failed to spot the smaller British submarine. This almost certainly wasn’t the only occasion on which two submarines from opposing navies met and passed each other by. Another instance was when an Italian and a British submarine encountered one another on the surface at night and after exchanging mutually unintelligible signals, both dived.

Even with such missed opportunities, the submarines from Manoel Island accounted for 54,000 tons of Axis merchant shipping between October 1941 and February 1942, as well as a destroyer, two submarines and two other ships off Taranto.

The ‘Magic Carpet’

During the First World War, the Germans had established a company to operate merchant submarines to carry much-needed strategic materials and bring them past the increasingly effective British blockade of German ports. While there was no equivalent British submarine ‘line’, given the strategic importance of Malta and the desperate plight of the islanders and the forces garrisoned there, British submariners were keen to show just what they could do. The submarine supply line that was established became known as the ‘Magic Carpet’.

While at first the Axis hold on Malta had been relatively light, by 1941 the situation was becoming increasingly difficult. Many convoys did not get through at all, and all suffered serious losses. It became the practice for every submarine heading to Malta from Gibraltar or Alexandria to carry at least some items of stores in addition to their usual torpedoes or mines. The true Magic Carpet submarines were the larger vessels, especially the mine-laying submarines Cachalot and Rorqual , as well as the fleet submarine Clyde and the larger boats of the ‘O’, ‘P’ and ‘R’ classes. An even better supply-carrying submarine would have been the Royal Navy’s sole aircraft-carrying submarine, M2 , whose aircraft hangar would have made a good cargo hold, but she had been lost in an accident some years before the war. An alternative could have been the French submarine Surcouf , a large 2,800-ton boat also with a hangar and in service with the Free French, but she was eventually lost in the Caribbean.

The ‘P’ or Porpoise -class minelayers and Clyde all proved to be especially efficient supply vessels with plenty of room between their casing and the pressure hull for stores, and sometimes one of the batteries would be removed to provide extra space; the mine stowage tunnel was another good cargo space. Rorqual on one occasion carried 24 personnel, 147 bags of mail, 2 tons of medical stores, 62 tons of aviation spirit and 45 tons of kerosene. Inevitably there was also much unofficial cargo, such as gin for the wardrooms and other officers’ messes on Malta, and even Lord Gort, the island’s austere governor, was not above having a small consignment of gramophone records brought out to him in this way. Cargo was sometimes carried externally in small containers welded to the casing of a submarine.

Impressive though the efforts of the submariners were, they could not compare with a merchant ship which at this time could carry as much as 7,500 tons of cargo compared with the 200 tons or so of a large submarine. For the submariners, there were problems as well, as the cargo gave rise to problems with buoyancy. Once Cachalot had so much sea water absorbed by wooden packing cases that her first lieutenant (i.e. on a smaller warship, the second-in-command) had to pump out 1,000 gallons of water from her internal tanks to compensate. Fuel was another hazard. In July 1941, Talisman carried 5,500 gallons in cans stowed beneath her casing, while on other occasions fuel could be carried in external fuel tanks. When carrying petrol in cans, submarines were not allowed to dive below 65 feet, while high-octane aviation fuel in the external tanks meant that fumes venting in the usual way constituted a fire hazard so smoking was banned on the conning tower and pyrotechnic recognition signals were also banned. These problems were in addition to conditions in the Mediterranean favouring smaller submarines rather than larger.

A good example of what could be done was the case of Saracen . She reached Malta via Gibraltar, sailing with a Malta-bound convoy. Smaller than the mine-laying submarines, Saracen had two of her fuel tanks cleared of diesel and filled with aviation fuel instead, while every space aboard was filled with food with priority being given to medical supplies and powered or tinned milk for children and babies. After reaching Malta, Saracen left to search for Italian merchantmen, but instead sank a destroyer and an Italian submarine.

In peacetime, Malta had been one of the most popular postings for the Royal Navy and an equally popular place to call. In wartime, despite the miserable conditions aboard submarines that had to remain submerged during daytime when in harbour, there was little enthusiasm for a ‘run ashore’, visiting the bars and other attractions of Valletta. Ashore, there was little to eat and not much to drink. Things were so bad that one army officer recalled his pleasure at being invited to dinner aboard a submarine.

In addition to the tradition of flying her ‘Jolly Roger’ at the end of a successful patrol, Porpoise added a second flag beneath the Jolly Roger’s tally of ships sunk. This was marked ‘PCS’ for ‘Porpoise Carrier Service’ with a white bar for each successful supply run, and this boat alone had at least four of these.

After delivering supplies to Malta, the Magic Carpet submarines would take mines from the island’s underground stores and proceed north to lay them off the main Italian ports, such as Palermo, before returning to Egypt or Gibraltar. They also torpedoed Axis shipping, and on one occasion an Italian submarine was torpedoed and sunk before an Italian merchant ship was also torpedoed, and as this stubbornly refused to sink, the submarine surfaced and sank her with gunfire.

The arrival of the famous Malta convoy Operation PEDESTAL in August 1942 reduced the pressure on the submarines to supply Malta and allowed increased offensive patrolling.

Despite this, by October 1942 the situation was again becoming difficult, with a renewed German air offensive. At this time, five submarines – Unbending , Unbroken , United , Utmost and Safari – attacked a convoy of five merchant ships including a tanker escorted by seven destroyers south of the Italian island of Pantelleria, co-ordinating the attack with aircraft from Malta.

The role of the submarine was varied. On 21 April 1941, the British Mediterranean Fleet ventured west for an attack on the Italian-held port of Tripoli. Accuracy was usually a great difficulty when attacking a land target from the sea in the dark, so Cunningham had the submarine Truant positioned exactly 4 miles off the harbour, showing a light to seaward as a navigation mark for the bombardment. Then in July, two submarines helped to confuse the enemy and assist a convoy en passage to Malta. The convoy was code-named Operation SUBSTANCE. While the Mediterranean Fleet steamed west from Alexandria to Malta and Force H escorted the convoy east from Gibraltar, the two submarines were west of Crete making fleet signals to indicate that the Mediterranean Fleet was operating in the area while the fleet itself maintained radio silence.

Truant was one of the new ‘T’-class submarines intended for operation in distant waters, which was to prove useful once Japan entered the war. The class could handle the long Pacific distances. It displaced 1,571 tons while submerged and had eight bow torpedo tubes as well as another aft and two amidships, with a 4in gun and light anti-aircraft weapons. Surface speed was just over 15 knots, but while submerged these boats could manage 9 knots, although the batteries needed to be recharged after an hour so the usual submerged speed was around 2 or 3 knots.

Originally Truant and her sisters had a range of 8,000 miles but on later boats this was extended to 11,000 miles by the use of welding to strengthen the boats during construction and by using some of the ballast tanks to carry fuel. However, this still compared badly with the range of more than 32,000 miles of the German Type IXD U-boat.


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